It’s the done thing to say Alan Ayckbourn’s humour turned darker as his life and career grew longer. Yet there was always a powerful underpull of despair beneath the shimmer of well-plotted farce as his characters revealed themselves to be suffering from modern versions of timeless woes: isolation, family break-up, snobbery running to class hatred, marital hostility and depression itself.
In this one, written and produced more than a decade ago as the first in his ‘Damsels In Distress’ trilogy, the process is intriguingly reversed; bleakness abounds and is openly acknowledged. Lynette has lost her money and her prospects with the bursting of the dotcom bubble. She and her daughter Sorrell will have to move from their stylish Docklands flat.
What to do. The answer is in the title as Sorrell plans to market her teenage charms. Her best friend Kelly helps her and agrees to be her “maid.” In comes the first punter, the classically Ayckbournian widower Leo, locked into an obsession with his late wife and unable to notice, let alone appreciate, the gauche gyrations of the would-be hooker. Since business has to be done in the flat while Mum is out, the play moves onto his most assured territory, the farce of shared spaces.
The scene is a crucial non-exchange, a social intercourse that never starts. Jethro Dykes’s Leo and Stacey Bland’s Sorrell enact this blank encounter with excruciating doggedness. Theatre of embarrassment at its best. While these two lean, as they must, towards caricature, Elaine Harry’s Lynette is by contrast a model of reductive portrayal. As if holding a line against the chaos of sudden penury, single parenthood and turbulent adolescence, her manner is close to inertia. As often happens in Ayckbourn, she – and Kelly – are the ones bearing a flickering torch of social realism through a gallery heightened by satire.
Ayckbourn is said to have written this after spending much time in his own Docklands flat and reflecting on how little you know of the events in lives and in rooms barely yards away. It is an ignorance he shares with Lynette, who is assumed by police investigating Leo’s death to be the one trading illicitly from the premises.
The most layered scene in the play is the one that brings the best out of Elaine Harry and Stacey Bland. For here is a mother who, like many another, is in sincere ignorance of her teenage daughter’s activities. Here too is a larky double act of overzealous coppers, well played by Sam South and Rachel Jackson like a Gilbert and Sullivan pair on acid. And here, finally, is the technically guilty but morally innocent daughter. It’s a scene, and a play, rich in observations about the sometimes dire consequences of good intentions; not to mention the ongoing comedy of which generation is doing the teaching, and which the learning. These lines and lives need careful elucidation, and from Lucy Bull’s direction for Post-It Productions, they certainly got it.
GamePlan by Alan Ayckbourn. Produced at the The Hen and Chickens, Islington by Post-It Productions.
GamePlan review by Alan Franks who you can follow on Twitter at @alanfranks and at www.alanfranks.com
17th March 2013